Salzburg University fires crystallographer Robert Schwarzenbacher for faking data in Journal of Immunology paper

Robert Schwarzenbacher

The crystallographer who confessed to data fabrication that has forced the retraction of a structure in a Journal of Immunology paper on birch pollen allergen — but later recanted — has been fired by the University of Salzburg.

Robert Schwarzenbacher, 39, was awarded a 1.7 million-euro Marie Curie fellowship, the highest individual European research award, six years ago. According to Salzburg’s

Salzburg University has terminated prestigious biologist Robert Schwarzenbacher, because he allegedly forged findings in birch pollen allergen research. Now his other works are being investigated.

Salzburg University rector Heinrich Schmidinger told that the firing came after a January 31 letter from Schwarzenbacher’s colleagues accusing him of misconduct. The university forwarded those allegations to the Agency for Scientific Integrity in Vienna, which confirmed they were true:

I think it is important that all of his publications be examined in order to determine whether this was a unique behavior, or whether it has happened several times at the end. To me he has certainly said that it was totally unique.

Schwarzenbacher will fight his dismissal, according to another story in On Wednesday afternoon, his lawyer issued the following statement on his behalf:

I am currently on sick leave and presently can say only the following about the termination by the University of Salzburg: The termination will be fought with the help of the [Government & Public Service] at the Salzburg regional court, as the University of Salzburg, despite the objection of the works council for the academic staff, issued the dismissal because of a fact made, and I also self-reported erroneous statements in a scientific publication in terms of my academic achievements by the Labour Relations Act is unwarranted. I ask for understanding that until the end of the proceedings, I can give no further information.

Thanks to Nancy Lapid for translations.

52 thoughts on “Salzburg University fires crystallographer Robert Schwarzenbacher for faking data in Journal of Immunology paper”

  1. I am following this blog since one year now, and I am amazingly shocked to see the increasing number of “leading scientists” who publish in “prestigious” journals and who receive millions of Dollars/Euros in research funds/grants who are actually “leading fraudsters”!
    I am now very, sceptical and critical when I read any scientific journals or scientific press release about perfect scientific stories or/and results.

    I would like to see independent scientific journalists be more critical, be involved in some editorial activities and who will be able to raise questions about the scientific results that are published by scientific researchers.

  2. If you look at his record of publications the mere number of them is in my opinion astonishing. Why does a researcher need to write about 80 papers in approximately a ten year interval, most of them with an enormous number of coautors? This could be either productivity at the maximum or it was always more important for this guy to stand somewhere on a paper of other people but with comparatively low own expenses. There is really a huge problem in science about people publishing far too much, only for the sake of their careers. I wish there would be far more time to work and think primarily, instead of giving talks and writing publications. To some degree the whole system is degenerated. I really look forward to a judgement of his other works. I do not believe that there is only one case of misconduct. It is not about errors, it is about fabricating data from scratch, without any measurement done!

    1. Schwarzenbacher worked for the Joint Center for Structural Genomics (based in California) for many years before becoming an independent PI, which appears to account for the majority of his publications (although he also appears to have been productive afterwards). As the name suggests, the purpose of the JCSG is to churn out many protein structures, hopefully novel (and often completely uncharacterized), in assembly-line fashion. The quality of the structures, from a crystallographer’s perspective, is actually relatively high; the quality of the science remains in dispute. Like most structural genomics centers, the JCSG aims for the low-hanging fruit: they try to express 100 proteins, 50 of these can be purified, 20 of them crystallize, and 10 end up as structures (which is probably too optimistic – I’ve heard attrition rates of 97%). Those 10 will be relatively quick and easy to solve. Furthermore, because of the way the JCSG works, as you’ve noticed their papers always end up with a huge number of authors, many of whom would have contributed minimally (kind of like high-energy physics, I guess). Many are simply short “structure notes”, with a couple of figures and a table of statistics. It’s not very difficult to produce a large number of these in a relatively short amount of time – not very much fun either, from what I’ve heard.

  3. His publication record is all about biologists knowing whom to call when they need a structure. He get’s purified protein in the mail and sets his students/techs to work making crystals. If he has a decent sized group, 8-10 papers a year is definitely doable for this kind of work.

    On the other hand, those same biologists who put protein in the mail and trustingly accepted and published his results are likely trying hard not to think too much about the structure he provided to them.

    1. One may then ask if the fact of doing technical tasks on a routine basis is enough to deserve to have your name on every papers?

      Again the rules governing the practice of research and data publishing are so vague and let to the good will of very few persons that overall this results in a corrupt and unfair system.

      …and this case is just another example that shows that the number of times your name is found in articles is not a good criterion to assess your ability to do good science.

      1. Generating crystals is not trivial. Absolutely the crystalographer should be an author.

        As far as your last point, I totally agree.

      2. Any paper which includes a crystal structure in the results will almost certainly include at least one figure of the structure. This certainly meets the minimal standards for inclusion as a co-author.

        The best scientists, however, in my opinion remain those who understand both the biology and the crystallography, and are fully capable of conducting (or at least directing!) experiments in either area; the artificial separation between “biologists” and “crystallographers” is an obsolete relic of a time when everything was much more difficult and time-consuming. (And I say that as someone who enjoys crystallography but was never much good at biology.)

  4. In response to Lilly

    April 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm

    Dear Lilly,

    You wrote “Again the rules governing the practice of research and data publishing are so vague.. ”

    Here are the rules:

    „Authorship credit should be based on 1) substantial contributions to conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; 2) drafting the article or revising it critically for important intellectual content; and 3) final approval of the version to be published. Authors should meet conditions 1, 2, and 3“.

    When is comes to „ large, multicenter group(s)“

    We have specifically (in fact the very next point):

    „When a large, multicenter group has conducted the work, the group should identify the individuals who accept direct responsibility for the manuscript (3). These individuals should fully meet the criteria for authorship/contributorship defined above, and editors will ask these individuals to complete journal-specific author and conflict-of-interest disclosure forms. When submitting a manuscript authored by a group, the corresponding author should clearly indicate the preferred citation and identify all individual authors as well as the group name. Journals generally list other members of the group in the Acknowledgments. The NLM indexes the group name and the names of individuals the group has identified as being directly responsible for the manuscript; it also lists the names of collaborators if they are listed in Acknowledgments“.

    When it comes to data collection we have the next point:

    „Acquisition of funding, collection of data, or general supervision of the research group alone does not constitute authorship“.

    I do not argue with your point that there is unfairness.

    The contributor section is also worth studying.

    The rules are there, the application of these rules is weak. There are coutless articles about unwarranted authorship, one recently in the BMJ, in which the prevalence was estmated at about 20%.

    BMJ. 2011 Oct 25;343:d6128. doi: 10.1136/bmj.d6128.
    Honorary and ghost authorship in high impact biomedical journals: a cross sectional survey.
    Wislar JS, Flanagin A, Fontanarosa PB, Deangelis CD.

    1. Please note that the Journal of Immunology is not on the list of journals that follow the ICMJE rules. In fact, there are a lot of journals that are not on the list.

      1. They are the standard rules for biomedicine though. That’s what you can point to and suggest people follow. If it ever came to a court of law you would be quite justified in showing those rules to a judge and pointing out:

        “Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals:
        Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publications”

        and the judge would likely accept that. If not the judge would call a few people who work in the field and ask them if the rules were the standard for the field, but would most likely read aound and come to the conclusion that they are the rules. The Journal of Immunology would then have to give good reason that it went aginst the standard for the field. They would need a good argument. U.S. and English law are rooted in what is reasonable.

      2. Not sure if you can put it that blunt. Any lawyer will kindly point out to the judge to the fact that the ICMJE is not an open membership organization, and that it has no formal legislative authority.

        Moreover, it is made clear these are all “recommendations” and that there is plenty of room for interpretation. Add a few examples of apparently different interpretations in the journals that supposedly adhere to the URM, and case closed.

    2. Ok, I should have written that the application of the rules of publication and ethics is left to the goodwill of everyone …

  5. In reply to Marco April 13, 2012 at 10:34 am.
    The judge will have little if any knowledge of science and will likely ask what the common rules are.
    The judge is unlikely to spent a lot of time and effort to come up with his/her own rules.
    “Justice at reduced cost” is how it goes in the U.K.. It may be a shock, but it is not “justice at all costs”. English and Scottish systems follow this rule. I imagine the U.S. is similar. The argumemt of what is reasonable, who did the work (ideas and labour), comes under what a reasonable common man would think.
    I don’t think there is any reason to go out of your way to find reasons not to follow the standard rules (a devil’s advocate in court?). That is how the law works. There is a need for a manageable as opposed to unmanageable system. The latter is simply not possible.
    My feeling is that journal editors in biomedicine who do not follow the ICMJE rules would have difficulty in explaining any rules they had which were at variance with them.

      1. My comment was as general response to Lilly who wrote on April 12, 2012 at 5:38 pm:

        “Again the rules governing the practice of research and data publishing are so vague..”

        I was simply trying to show that are some standards to which people can point.
        Without the rules the “robber barons” run riot. In the age of PC there will be people who argue for their right to run riot.

        Why not stick to the science and the guidelines/rules? Forget the “reasonable man” if it makes it easier to understand.

    1. Legal point of order: the purpose of the “reasonable man” standard, and its many legal cognates, is precisely to avoid rule-like standardization. The idea is to permit a wide variety of choices, individual judgment, and discretion. The standard only sets a minimum, ex-post threshhold of rationality, i.e. is action ‘x’ within the broad range of things that some ordinary, minimally rational person might have done in the circumstances. It is almost the opposite of the prescriptive, ex-ante optimality criterion, e.g. determining what Jesus [Mao, Ghandi, Schweitzer or whoever] would do.

      Apologies for what may seem an obscure point of legal philosophy, but it really matters. When we adopt detailed rules of behavior, then actors will be judged by technical compliance with rules. When we adopt standards of rationality, then actors are judged by their good faith and sound judgment. We need a bit of both, of course; but the former tends to generate tax lawyers, while the latter may generate good citizens. The process doesn’t need to be managed, so manageability isn’t the issue. Rather, the world needs more things like RW, which imposes reputational costs on bad judgment and unreasonable behavior, simply by exposing them.

    2. I am wondering then if we may hope that the rules be followed without having a coercive system? I am generally against coercive system and I like to think that human beings have evolved enough to understand that it is important to respect certain rules in order to have a system that works properly. But I think it’s great naivety coming from me…..

      I have questions here for psychologists: Why some people will be more inclined to follow ethical rules than others? Why some people cheat more than others? (if somebody can answer me..)

  6. More news: Schwarzenbacher claims in the local newspapers, that it was no intentional fraud, but an mistake/error.

  7. If one drives (not intentionally, but by mistake/error) just “a little bit over the speed limit”, one pays a fine.

    Then, WHY intentional misconduct/fraud (even when in gigantic proportions) shouldn’t be fined?

    I fully support Bernard Soares’ suggestion for fining the fraudsters/editors/publishers. (see RW

    This will be good for the Government’s revenue, and also for the tax payers, as it will deter misuse of public money.

    1. Well, if you got public money through fraud, then you should pay restitution, on top of a fine….

      1. Couldn’t agree more.
        Fraudsters should PAY BACK the money from the grants.
        This will have immense moralizing effect on the whole academic community.

  8. I wonder why on earth the crystallographer who detected the inconsistencies did not contact Schwarzenbacher, but preferred the laborious way trying to tie the problem down. From a pragmatic point of view contacting him would have save more money and worktime and trouble then initiating the unpleasant proceedure we are seeing now.

    1. We have no way of knowing what went on behind the scenes; it’s possible that he did contact Schwarzenbacher and was ignored, or given an unsatisfactory explanation. What I do know, from talking to other people who’ve tackled cases of fraud or incompetence, is that it’s often very difficult to make any progress. The response from the original authors is often “okay, we’ll deal with it”, then nothing happens. Journals are often equally reluctant to pursue these cases. As a result, papers which are entirely incorrect can stay on the record for years. I was impressed that the response of the university and the co-authors of the original paper appears to have been so quick. (And what should have happened instead of this “unpleasant procedure”? If fraud was to blame, brushing it under the carpet is not the correct solution.)

      Rupp should be commended for actually taking the time to follow through on this and write a clear explanation of his analysis – most of us would rather not bother. I suspect that part of the reason for being so thorough was the potential educational value of this exercise to the rest of the community.

      1. If it is a case of bold doubtless fraud, I could imagine no other way than Schwarzenbacher would immediately have reacted, after having been contacted by Rupp. By retracting the structure from the database and writing an propper erratum. There would be no other way out. That would not be brushing it under the carpet, but a both peaceful and constructive solution for science.
        So the only explanation I can see for that case (R contacted S) is that Schwarzenbacher is convinced that he did not commit fraud. And that would lead me then to the conclusion that he did in deed not commit fraud (at least in case of mental sanity what I would presume throuout for everyone without proove of the opposite).

      2. In reply to Joe: and that would be it? Writing an ‘erratum’? No other consequences? How can submitting a protein model to the PDB just ‘happen’? Don’t they ask for a lot of parameters, there, that you have to invent, if you have no crystal-data? How on earth could that possibly be ‘not intentional’? We should not forget that a lot of excellent researchers do not get a position as a full professor, for lack of positions. Wouldn’t it be fair then to give the now vacant position to a researcher, who has a clean slate?

    2. In reply to Joe who wrote April 14, 2012 at 1:13 pm

      “unpleasant proceedure we are seeing now”.

      Is it “pleasant” to find out that the results were not true?

      “Unpleasant” is not a scientific term I have heard of. It is a stiffling, somewhat emotive term.
      Many do find scientific enquiry “unpleasant” though.
      Science first, second, and third please.

    3. I have on many occasions pointed out incorrect claims in other people’s papers. However, most of the time, the authors get very defensive, and find excuses and reasons of varying quality for why they are right and nothing should be changed. Hence, if somebody has reason to believe there is a problem, pointing it out to the community is a good idea. On the other hand, I were not completely sure about the fact that something is wrong, I would prefer to check with the authors first rather than starting a public campain.

      1. They are publications. That means something for the public to see.
        Publications are not private lives.
        It is a public campaign to publish in the first place.
        People who point out inconsistencies, or worse, in publications are not “snitches” (the American word), or “sneaks” (the British word).

      2. I do not mean the bit about publications to be individual, but general.
        It is not about Schwarzenbacher, or Austria, but about science, wherever it is done.

        Here is what the Brish are saying about the British:

        13 January 2012

        “British scientists are fundamentally failing to deal with research misconduct, which is widespread in the country, leading experts have warned”.

  9. How does one distinguish between fraud and lack of skill or incompetence.

    As I understand Schwarzenbacher is saying that he made an error, not fraud.

    Anonymous C. gives us the following breakdown
    “Like most structural genomics centers, the JCSG aims for the low-hanging fruit: they try to express 100 proteins, 50 of these can be purified, 20 of them crystallize, and 10 end up as structures (which is probably too optimistic – I’ve heard attrition rates of 97%).”
    I think we can asume the protein of interest can be purified, as it is quite small its odds of crystallisation is perhaps better than average and I presume so would solving the structure from collected data (as a non-crystallographer)

    As I understand this (and I don’t understand that much of it) the allegation is that the structure has really been derived from two previously described structures that have around 94% sequence identity, not from independentally derived crystal data. The structure – at least in terms of helices, sheets and loops – is accurate enough in terms of the paper it appears in (although it undermines the integrity of the structure database), as it indicates that a cysteine residue is available for a disulphide bond – which the authors believe holds the key to its hypoallergenic nature. However in terms of the paper this could have been demonstrated by openly stating that they were constructing a model based on previous described almost identical allergans.

    If Schwarzenbacher can show
    a. He made crystals
    b. He obtained adequate diffraction data from the crystals that confirm the model as it appeared in the paper
    c. He did not sufficiently distinguish the contributions that previous structures compared with his own data collection in his uploaded structure
    could one except an explanation of error or carelessness or inappropriate short-cuts rather than deliberate fraud?

    I should add that I make no pretence to knowledge of crystallography in these comments.

    1. Let us assume it was a mixup: That means, beside a correctly sloved structure, he also had a model on his computer, which anyone can do (just sending the protein sequence to a server, 5 minutes work), and for which, for sime mysterious reason he calculated hypothetical crystallographic parameters and added errors, so that it looks like a crystal structure and can be submitted to the PDB… Fine. Why on earth didn’t he tell this to his collaborators, retract the model structure, submit the correct structure to PDB instead and apologize for the mixup? I also don’t think that the Agency for Scientific Integrity in Vienna makes allegations of fraud lightly.

      1. I think part of the problem here is it is unclear whether commentators have a good insight into the techniques they are discussing (in this case I certainly don’t). As far as I am aware you can’t get a model or structure just by sending a protein sequence to a server – or at least you couldn’t when I was forced to leave science some years ago after whistleblowing on scientific misconduct.

        Now if Schwarzenbacher just took previously derived structures, substituted the 7 or 8 differing amino acid residues, added some random factors as errors etc – then by all means throw the book (and the pink slip) at him.

        If, however, he expressed the protein, purified the protein, crystallised the protein, obtained adequate diffraction data from his crystals to confirm previously submitted structures and simply submitted to the database data derived from multiple sources then I am not sure if the crime is so serious.

        Of course this is why we have something called due process. Due process means an investigative committee is formed, they go through lab records and look at raw data on analysers etc and they allow the accused to give his account of what happened. Now in some aspects – such as protein expression and crystallisation – it might be possible to mislead investigators, but in terms of whether there is a raw data file of a diffraction collection on a server, this must be difficult to fake with people expert in the field. Such a process would also assist in determining if the problem was ongoing, putting previous structures in question, or was a one off.

        The onus is definitely on Schwarzenbacher to show what went wrong, but surely he has the right to make his case to a committee with appropriate expertise rather than a rush to summary judgement. Unless it is already obvious to crystallographers or the university that no bench work was performed at all.

  10. In Schwarzenbacher’s case Salzburg University did the right thing, but this is more an exception rather than the rule.

    In academic publishing we do see what we see now, because for two decades (or more) there are strong incentives for misconduct/fraud (“publish or perish”) and, in most cases, there are absolutely no consequences for the offenders when the misconduct/fraud is revealed. Then, no wonder that the cases of misconduct/fraud grow exponentially.

    What will happen with road safety, if there are rules for it, but there are NO mechanisms to enforce these, NEITHER any penalties for the offenders? You know best of all what will happen, don’t you?

    Please, do not forget that that in academic publishing (unlike on the road) an offence (misconduct/fraud) becomes PERMANENT and PERPETUATES indefinitely by being published. The only way to terminate the offence is to RETRACT the paper. Another matter is what the penalties for the offenders in different cases should be.

    If authors/editors/publishers refuse to do the right thing, then there should be PENALTIES for them (pay back the money from the grant, fines, compensate damages incurred to third parties, etc., etc.)

    Top managers around the world know that “If you do what you did, you’ll get what you got. If you want to get something different, YOU SHOULD DO SOMETHING DIFFERENT”.

    And RW is an important step in the right direction.

    1. Disobeying road rules can have at least as permanent and perpetuating consequences as misconduct in academic publishing: Just go and ask the families of victims of road accidents… Pretty poor choice of an analogy.

      1. On the contrary!

        I’m sure most of the other readers will find it as very good analogy.
        The difference between the two is that those who did break the road rules bear the consequences (either fines or injuries), while those who committed publication misconduct/fraud usually get away with it. While (public information about) the former deters other offenders, the later encourages others to commit misconduct/fraud. I’m making a point on RW that it’s time to bring consequences to those who commit misconduct/fraud in academic publishing. This should be made public in order to deter other offenders.

        Thanks a lot for your example!

  11. It is a pity. You are fighting year after year to get one shitty results and those people….oh boy.
    What is wrong with thes guys?
    I lost every hope in this wolrd.

  12. @littlegreyrabbit: http://www.swissmodel org is a server, where you can get a structural model based on a sequence and based on deposited structures from data bases. the PDB viewer would be another tool to do it. both takes 5-10 minutes, no rocket sicence involved. Swissmodel even comes with validation reports co-delivered (Ramachandran plots….).
    As I understood it, Schwarzenbacher’s firing happened after due process and after his confession to co-autors ant Rektor (retracted, since).

  13. well well…. honestly, what I have found here is a collection of claims made by a collective of researchers that I find, no offense, inconsistent and difficult to prove.
    Everybody here is eager to pint-point and accuse without having all the facts.
    1) having a name in a paper it is not sufficient proof and further research is to be made before making claims of fraud.
    So far, I haven’t found in these pages data explaining the facts. These are collections of statements “I have told him”, “he told me that bla bla bla” stuff in my view are quite vague.
    2) Considering that the PDB is full of inconsistencies (if one have had the chance to systematically work with it), what it is really surprising is that this very single one was rapidly detected, whereas so many are not.
    To clarify, usually, the PDB, or the authors, when they detect anomalies in structural data, warn the creators of the structure. This is scientific courtesy to allow scientists correct errors, that could happen for many reasons.
    Instead, what I have seen here is a quick procedure that in all lights seem to destroy the reputation of a scientist.
    To be clear: I am not defending the fact that if somebody deposit wrong data. This should have consequences once the purpose of it is cleared. What I am smelling here is a very sophisticated and neat way of “witch-hunt”. The take home message here is: if you are important DO not make mistakes.

    1. Well, these are the facts:
      If you have another explanation for these findings than generation of virtual crystallography data based on a simple homology model, let us know. The author of this paper, the editors of the journal, Schwarzenbacher’s co-authors, the Agency for Scientific Integrity in Vienna and so far also Schwarzenbacher didn’t (even when confronted by co-autors, the Rektor…).
      I can even understand that he didn’t want to invest work in the crystallization of a protein, where an almost identical protein is already structurally characterized. A model from such a template should be waaay good enough for the hypotheses of the original immunology paper. Why, why, why on earth, didn’t he just call it a model in the paper?

      1. if it wasaa referee sugestion, one can reasonably aruge against it – supported by exampls from literature – or submit somewhere else. something like that is definitely not ‘the referee’s fault’.

    2. Dear “Scientist”,

      I did write :

      “I do not mean the bit about publications to be individual, but general.
      It is not about Schwarzenbacher, or Austria, but about science, wherever it is done”.

      Fernando Pessoa April 15, 2012 at 11:02 am

      As individual posts come up there will be comments that are more general. The individual does not exist in a vacuum, and general rules may apply to that individual. Practically, you have to post somewhere.

    3. Well, well, well … the dark side in science (misconduct, fraud and cover up) has its advocates in the face of Mr. Science.

      However, here (on RW) you deal with intelligent audience and your cheap tricks to divert, dilute and dismiss the allegations will not work.

      We’ll keep this in mind for ANY other comments you make on RW.

    4. To clarify:
      1- I think misconduct and fraud ARE NOT aceptable in either science or anything else in life, therefore -> It should be thoroughly investigated. But making Summary executions reminds me of the medieval times.

      My main point breaths from this very same concept:

      2- If this affair would have been done by a fellow, phD student, etc, or any insignificant scientist like myself, I bet you it won’t have had the amplification this affair is having.

      4- My second point which is legitimate: why one should think that the scientific community is kind of a sacred community where all the statements made by the highly-reputed scientists are free of question?
      Like if everything that a peer-reviewed system is exempt of discussion? How many retracted papers have been perfectly peer-reviewed without questioning? How many scientific lies have been preserved?

      Science is not written is hard-coded crystal, and EVERYTHING should be questioned, even the actions of the so-called pure peer-review panels. Because they are also humans therefore prone to errors.

      Unfortunately the system has flaws and allows scientists (in either side, its self-side or science side) to bend the holes of it to profit… so, as a scientist I really do not trust anything I heard until I have enough proof of everything. We are not considering here related facts as competition states, conflict of interests, etc… in these dark times where publishing is essential as token system to survive in science. Publishing has become a business of survival… therefore competition’s evil side has produced dreadful side effects, that jeopardizes science’s credibility.

      In this particular case: there are many aspects I do not know regarding this affair, i.e.: how was the relationship of this author with the colleagues, with the faculty of the University, with the reviewers, with the editors… so taking ONE side without question is to me as naive as believing in GOD…

      I am not DEFENDING fraud or miss-conduct. I would like to know all the surrounding circumstances to decide whether this was done as a singular event or as a systematic way. And this is one thing should be done.

      2- @ YouKnowBestOfAll: you miss-understood me, unfortunately. I do not like to play tricks with serious affairs. I just have some legitimate questions that nobody is posting here. Dark side on the science? Sorry I fail to recognize you as the savor of the science-moral and ethics….
      And @Finnja: you are totally right.

      1. As a point of information what “summary executions” are you referring to?

        You wrote (Scientist April 22, 2012 at 6:31 am)

        “Summary executions reminds me of the medieval times”.

        This was the starting point of your argument.

  14. @Scientist: no offence taken, but if you read the paper and the response, you should not be speaking of witch-hunt anymore. The paper by Rupp was peer-reviewed as any other paper in that journal is, and the authors of the J. Immunol. paper were contacted BEFORE the paper was published. Had there been an acceptable explanation for the observed unusual features, the Rupp-paper would probably not have gone into print.
    @Finnja: I think you are absolutely head-on with your statement.
    @Everybody: I am really wondering why so many seem to think, Schwarzenbacher is the victim. The real victims are his students and technicians. Who will now believe what they have done, having Schwarzenbacher’s name on their papers?

  15. bingerl –
    It doesn’t seem that Rupp personally contacted Schwarzenbacher before submitting his paper. It appears that the journal contacted the corresponding author (not Schwarzenbacher) on 9 February and one of the immunologists replied on the 24th February – claiming a confession, which has been denied by Schwarzenbacher. Immunologists are not competent to carry out a inquiry into crystallography – only fellow structural biologists can do that.

    I note from the retraction that “Co-authors Zaborsky, Brunner, Wallner, Himly, Karl, Ferreira and Achatz were in no way involved in the generation of the crystallographic data.” Karl, namely Tanja Karl, is or was a scientific officer in Schwarzenbacher’s lab, her role almost certainly was purifying the protein to high concentration and producing crystals. If the remaining authors are saying she as no responsibility then that presumably means crystals were produced.

    Thats why I personally think there is a chance that this issue is not so serious as people assume and why I think a proper investigation should have taken place first and a report compiled.

    If the University has denied Schwarzenbacher natural justice AND due process, they may have made a costly mistake.

    1. You may have a point there. However, it is common practice to contact the corresponding author of a paper, when there are problems of some sort. Now, Achatz had passed away last year, and Ferreira assumed the responsibility to act as the corresponding author (read what she said in the interview of Retraction Watch). I would guess though, that Ferreira contacted Schwarzenbacher, before they went public. However, you know how fast these things can spread. Somebody hears something, tells it to the next in line and all of sudden everybody knows something.

      Another problem in this respect is that it is not obvious for an outsider to know who did what when it comes to contributions of an article. That is certainly a weakness of the system, but that is also why there is a corresponding author. The corresponding author is to be seen as the main or the sole contact person for all issues concerning an article.

      So, I still can not see anything wrong in the procedure as it was described here and in the response of the authors.

  16. Update: they had their first day in court. the University refuses to take back the firing of S. S’s lawyer argues that it is invalid due to formal reasons and the fact that it was an error that was corrected and did not do any harm. Interestingly, the University’s Lawyer argues that it is a case of plagiarism concerning the work of an Italian Professor from Trieste!? No idea, why the line of argumentation is like that. Rupp’s paper (and… and…) conclude it is data-fabrication, never any mention of plagiarism. Oh, lawyers…

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